Yeelen (warning: movie spoiler)

We watched a movie about Mali folklore and I couldn’t help compare it to Judeo-Christian mythology.

The movie was stunning, but meant for African audiences.  I couldn’t guess the ending and I didn’t know the symbolisms.  It was also often silent.  It felt like we were in the desert listening to the wind and occasional insect.

Yeelen is the story of why the Bambara peoples who were once very powerful became enslaved.  It is similar to the story of Babylonian exile of the Hebrews, but with a very different conclusion.

In Yeelam, the hero Niankoro is guided by his mother to take a fetish from his evil father and give it to his good uncle.   The boy’s father is so enraged that he vows to kill his only son and pursues him with magic.  The boy travels through the lands of other tribes and befriends them.

The father calls on magic to destroy his son.  At last there is a show-down.  The god that this particular family are priests for is the powerful Doro who appears in the final battle.  Doro explains that the father has been guilty of corruption and that the punishment is death for father and son and enslavement for the Bambara peoples.  However, this enslavement will ultimately bring good for the people.

Not to be extinguished, Niankoro has an heir.  A Peul chief asks Niankoro to cure his youngest wife of being barren, which he does but in the traditional way.  Instead of death, he was given her as a wife.  She follows him quietly with her head down for much of the movie.  A submissive Mary with a son destined for great things.

However, in this story, the blame of the misfortune of enslavement is given to the corrupt rulers.  In the places of bible, the blame is placed on the immigrants.  Ezra and Nehemiah both blame the Moab and Ammonite wives and children for Babylon’s conquest.  They call for fear and hatred of their neighbours while the Malian story shows the compassionate side of all the peoples in the land and even celebrates intermarriage.

In the Judeo-Christian story innocent children are punished.  First the mixed marriage children in the OT and then Jesus in the NT.  In Yeelen the guilty party is punished directly.

I wonder how our bible and the cultures affected by it would have been different if they had blamed corrupt political and religious leaders for problems instead of innocent children and other vulnerable poeple.  Of course, the Malian story was written by the surviving enslaved, not the rulers of the time.

Mali today still has sharp tribal divides.  I also wonder if this is augmented by the arrival of middle-eastern gods.  The most vicious tribe, the Fulani, are herders who regularly destroy and burn villages of farming communities.  The Fulani are now fundamentalist Muslims.  Did some of the fear of differences that the Abrahamic religion cultivates infiltrate them?  Or were they already like that and therefore drawn to fundamentalist Islam?

Where did the compassionate interest in other cultures go?  Where was the dialogue between groups that the movie showed?  At least this movie showed that in a positive light, fitting because Yeelen means Brightness.

2 thoughts on “Yeelen (warning: movie spoiler)

  1. Ahab says:

    Were the Yeelan people matrilinial, by any chance? The pitting of the mother and uncle against the father made me wonder.

    “The Fulani are now fundamentalist Muslims. Did some of the fear of differences that the Abrahamic religion cultivates infiltrate them? Or were they already like that and therefore drawn to fundamentalist Islam?”

    This is fascinating. I wonder if any ethnographic work has been done on the Fulani that could yield an answer to your question.

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